Ambras Court hunting cards, c. 1440–45

This beautiful handpainted, but never fully finished deck survives in a fairly good condition, even though two out of the originally 56 cards are lost.

The deck has four suits consisting of pip cards from one to ten, Unter, Ober, queen and king. Unusually, all four courts are mounted (though one Unter is in the process of mounting or dismounting his steed, and another one is standing beside it). The ones are not treated differently from the other pip cards qualitatively. In order to fill the space of the cards, the size of the suit symbols gradually decreases from the ones to the nines; the tens are banners.

The set of suits is particular to this deck, but strongly resembles that of the slightly older Stuttgart playing cards; in both decks all four suits relate to the royal hunt. The only identical suit is that of hunting falcons. Both also have a suit of hounds, differing only in the breed depicted. The Ambras deck has sighthounds while the Stuttgart deck has scent hounds in the pip cards but a sighthound on the banner of the ten. Both also has a suit of waterfowl, being the quarry of the falcons. Here they differ in species, with herons in the Ambras deck and ducks in the Stuttgart one. The fourth suit is entirely different, with lures used in falcon training in the Ambras deck and harts in the Stuttgart one.

Apart from the kings and queens which all have golden backgrounds, each suit has its own characteristic background colour. Lures are on red, falcons on dark blue and hounds on purple; herons, who also have landscapes in the background have a gradual transition from white at the horizon to light blue at the top of the card. It is very tempting to assume that this is functional as well as decorative, and that the two reddish suits are weak (lower pip cards beat higher ones) while the bluish ones are strong (normal ranking) – or vice versa.

The images below are adapted from photos available at Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.